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By Emmanuel T. Erediano

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Feb. 1) –American Samoa’s delegate to Congress and Hawaii’s senior U.S. senator back the creation of a "special industry committee" in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) as it "transitions" to the federal minimum wage rate.

The CNMI government, which has opposed any increase in the local rate, now says that it supports a gradual wage hike that would be set by a wage review committee, patterned after American Samoa’s tiered-wage system that is overseen by a wage board and the U.S. Department of Labor.

The CNMI and American Samoa are the only U.S. jurisdictions not paying the federal minimum wage rate of $5.15 an hour.

The CNMI rate has been $3.05 since 1996, while American Samoa has 16 wage rates ranging from $2.57 to $4.09.

In a letter to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, D-A.S., and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hi., said the CNMI should be treated "in the same manner as American Samoa."

A copy of their letter dated Jan. 22 was provided to this reporter by Rep. Ray N. Yumul, Ind.-Saipan and author of a recently introduced bill that would increase the local wage rate gradually based on the recommendation of a wage review committee.

Kennedy, D-Mass., is chairman of the Committee on Health, Education Labor and Pensions.

According to Faleomavaega and Inouye, their proposal has been endorsed by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hi., the two co-sponsors of the 1999 measure that would have federalized CNMI immigration.

Faleomavaega and Inouye said the CNMI should be allowed to transition into the Fair Labor Standards Act through a special industry committee.

They said the news reports suggesting that American Samoa is exempted from the federal minimum wage are "misleading."

American Samoa, they added, is covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. "But because of its isolation and inherently less competitive and less resilient economy, the rate at which wages are increased is determined by special industry committees."

This mechanism, the two lawmakers said, "has successfully permitted a proper and periodic analysis of economic conditions to help assure that the increases can be sustained by the economy. It also worked successfully in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and brought those territories to the national minimum wage."

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